The Artist And The Fbi
A routine chat becomes a spurious scandal.
Thursday, December 20, 2001
APacific Grove artist named John Middleton is at the center of a mystery this week after being visited by an FBI agent earlier in the month.
Middleton, an artist who restores old paintings, works in the Pacific Grove Art Center, and contributed a painting to the Art Center''s current show of reactions to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. His work is titled "The Never-Ending Solution," and depicts five young girls--German, Japanese, Vietnamese, Iraqi and Afghan--with bombs pointed at them from overhead. The bombs are colored with the Stars and Stripes.
An account of the FBI agent''s visit made it onto the Santa Cruz Progressive Email List, an online bulletin board. The writer reports that Middleton was questioned "purely because he showed a painting at the Pacific Grove Art Center depicting innocent children being bombed with bombs painted with the American Flag."
The note says, "And you thought only China prohibited expression of thought..." and "Joe McCarthy rises again."
Only some of that is true.
On Dec. 6 Middleton was working in his studio when an FBI agent named Joel Parker visited him. He will not say what he and the agent spoke about for half an hour.
Middleton describes Agent Parker as having been dressed in a "shiny black suit" and dark glasses. He says the agent had a shaved head, which Middleton found unusual. Otherwise, he''s mum about the visit. Parker did not return calls to his office in San Francisco.
"The FBI agent asked me not to comment about his visit," Middleton says.
While Middleton did not take the opportunity to deny outright that the visit was a response to his artwork, he says that he intends to keep his word.
But word got out.
Figuring largely into the publicity of the matter is Ed Leeper, a self-described "radical" from New Monterey.
Middleton says Leeper overheard a conversation about the FBI visit between Middleton and the art center''s director, Judi Giordano, shortly after the agent left.
"She asked who it was, so I told her," Middleton says.
Giordano asked why the agent had visited, and Middleton says he told her jokingly, "Maybe he''s interested in one of my paintings."
He says Leeper overheard this and asked if it was for real. Middleton showed Leeper the agent''s calling card, which Leeper promptly recorded.
Leeper''s account is a bit different. He says Middleton walked up and told him about the visit while Leeper was at the gallery.
"He told me," Leeper says, "and he did so because of my background, politically."
Also figuring into the purported scandal is Carmel activist David Dilworth. Leeper says he told Dilworth, a friend and fellow traveler, about the FBI visit, and Dilworth turned around and called the press.
Asked if he told any newspapers, Dilworth says, "I mentioned it to a few people." Pressed again he says, "I have called some newspapers."
Dilworth did not volunteer that he had also circulated an item via email claiming that the FBI''s visit was prompted by Middleton''s painting and decrying the visit as an example of an FBI inquisition against political art.
But Middleton produced an email, forwarded to him by a friend, that bore the name of Dilworth''s Peninsula Environmental News. Dilworth''s email replicated the wording of the message on the Santa Cruz Progressive list.
However, the discussion between agent and artist was not about art, the FBI says.
"It was completely for other reasons, totally unrelated to any art," says Special Agent Andrew Black, spokesman for the San Francisco office of the FBI.
Black acknowledges that an FBI agent paid a visit to Middleton. However, while Black was reluctant to reveal details about the meeting, he says, "I can tell you it had nothing to do with the domestic terrorism investigation."
Black says the FBI talks to citizens routinely for any number of reasons, from federal background checks for every type of government job to investigations of criminal enterprises.
"The idea that this has anything to do with the content of the art is ludicrous," Black says. "It''s our job to protect people''s First Amendment rights."
Middleton says his painting was a indeed a political statement.
"The message that was sent was the American bombing campaigns indicated were all focused on civilian targets," he says. "It hopefully asks the question, ''Who are the terrorists?''"
Middleton usually paints landscapes, but doesn''t sell many. He says he''s not involved in any criminal activity, nor is he overly political.
He grew up in Monterey and San Diego, the son of a naval officer. He declared himself a conscientious objector in the last years of the draft for the Vietnam War.
Middleton says Dec. 6 was not the first time a federal agent has come calling. He says he was visited by another FBI agent a few years ago. Along with Agent Joel Parker''s business card, Middleton also had the business card of the previous agent, laid out in plain view in his studio last week.
He will not disclose what that visit was about.
In the post Sept.11 era, it''s been reported in the press that the FBI has been ordered to be more proactive in its counterterrorism operations. Also, news of the hundreds of detained foreigners and military tribunals have shown that the government is changing some rules about the judiciary, habeas corpus and the right to privacy.
There have, however, been no reported government challenges to the right of free